I receive daily requests for new costumes* and due to the volume of ideas and the high turnover of identities that my kids want to inhabit, I regularly suggest we make masks. I knew that The Carnevale, which is currently taking place in Venice, Italy, would spark their imaginations.
(As a sad sort of aside: we were very struck by the death of David Bowie a fortnight ago, and while we played his music loudly and watched Labyrinth many times in the days following, it is his influence as a theatrical, costumed, fluid character that has the most impact in our house. This article about the history of masks in Venice talks about the freedom from social restrictions that they provided to Venetians and obviously Bowie also well understood this power of a “mask”. The ability to change your appearance at will is very appealing to my four-year-olds, perhaps as part of forming their own identities, and so for a day or two after Bowie died they became Ziggy Stardust).
When it comes to the masquerade in Venice, the children were familiar with this poem that I learned at school and can recite very quickly like a tongue-twister for laughs. We recalled the fact that Venice has water instead of roads, which is fascinating, of course, and difficult to get your head around when you first learn of it!
We looked at many photographs of traditional masks and characters from Commedia Del’Arte and naturally the creepiest ones were the favourites. We created Brighella the villain in dastardly yellow (his ugly wrinkles have been painted over but nevermind).
The other mask has a beak-like nose that resembles the costumes of the “Medico Della Peste” or Plague Doctors that filled their pointy masks wish sweet-smelling herbs to avoid breathing in the deadly vapours of their patients. I spent much of the afternoon pretending to be afraid and shocked when the pointy nose of this mask revealed itself around corners before its cackling owner.
(A basic template for how to make this mask, which was so satisfying to make and wear, can be seen below. We make most of our masks from cereal or muesli bar boxes).
Whether the children are taking on new identities for a masquerade on the other side of the world or emulating a beloved pop hero, the lesson is clear: be whoever you want to be.
*”Mum, can you make me a costume? I wanna be Puss in Boots. No, no, no, The Hulk. Or Iron Man. Actually, an ogre… make it Shrek. Or how about a baddy from Star Wars! Yeah, yeah, a Storm Trooper. Definitely a dragon. A Leopard or a pelican or a meerkat. A Gorilla! I love gorillas! A knight. For sure this time. Yes, I wanna be a knight. Why are you taking so long to make my costume, mum?”